Warning: This is an interview that involves sex. Queer sex. Oh, and farts.
I was at my first Emerald City Comic Con, strolling through the small presses when I first happened upon her table. It was covered with a strange and wonderful collection of creations: small white booklets (like those you made in elementary school) talking humorously about girl-on-girl sex, prints of gorgeous collages that combined Russian-saint-style iconography and sex toys, origami, and glossy books emblazoned with the word DAR. The girl behind the table, with pixie-cut orange hair and an amazingly cheery smile, introduced me to her work in all its forms and I was hooked.
I finished reading Erika Moen's autobiographical DAR before I left the con for the day. Literally, I could not tuck it away in my bag. The story of her journey from sexually confused teen to dyke to sex-radical in love with a man(!?!) was powerful, revealing, crass and above all, funny as hell.
Over the years, I have looked for Erika Moen at the cons, and each time I find her, there's more to love. A second DAR book, a collaborative conversation comic with cartoonist Lucy Knisley (Drawn to You), a huge print of about a thousand illustrated figures in every sexual position imaginable, and, of course, lots of evidence of Moen's fascination with cephalopods. This year's Emerald City Comic Con finally allowed me to ask her a few questions.
Laura Akers for Comics Bulletin: Your work has been a mesh of sex, identity politics, personal angst, farts, toys, self-flagellation, attraction and tea. It uncovers some pretty personal and not-always-pleasant stuff. Did you start putting it all out there from the beginning? Or has it been a progression of opening up? Your readers have seen the demons you've dealt with over the years. Was being able to express this in the first place one of those demons?
Erika Moen: Haha, actually DAR started completely openly, nothing really held back and then, as it went on, I started censoring it more and more. In the beginning, no one was reading it so there really weren't any stakes involved. I was just a dumb kid in college over-sharing on the Internet just like all the other dumb teens and twenty-somethings who do the exact same thing on Facebook. The only difference is that I was turning my sharable moments into comics instead of LiveJournal entries (although I did do plenty of that too).
As time went on and I started to gather a readership, though, it became very obvious I had to start thinking about how people reading my comics on the Internet would have real life repercussions for me and how they'd affect my relationships with my friends and partners. So the longer I did it, the less I was talking about stuff that felt really important to me and more sharing the fluffy, inoffensive, funny moments. That's one of the big reasons why I ended it, I didn't feel like I could talk honestly and openly any more. Doing autobio really felt like training wheels for me; it kept me drawing regularly, kept me meeting my deadlines, was good practice to learn storytelling, etc. etc. Once I'd had six years of that under my belt, I was ready to move on!
CB: What would you have liked to talk about that you felt you couldn't be honest about?
Moen: I would have liked to talk more about the fluxation and evolution of my personal sexual identity in more depth, but like I said, anything relating to queer identity became an instant nuclear bomb, so it was a subject I had to really hold myself back on. Sigh.
CB: Personal admission: from the moment I first saw your work at an Emerald City Comic-Con a few years ago, I thought to myself, "Whatever this girl is selling, I'm buying." There was the instant feeling that Dylan Meconis summed up in her introduction to the second volume of DAR that "to encounter Erika's work is to feel like she's a part of your life, and that in some way, you're a part of hers." You go to a lot of conventions and meet a lot of your fans. Who the hell — aside from me and Dylan — is the audience for this stuff? What is it that makes it so easy for certain people to connect to your work?
Moen: Man, I do not even know! I try to keep the tone of my work lighthearted and funny, even when I'm talking about things that do not necessarily go hand-in-hand with that voice. I really don't know! I just really love talking to people and finding the things we have in common, which I guess comes through in my work too. My main audience seems to be primarily women between the ages of 15 and 30 and people who fit somewhere on the queer scale (Though I don't really have Hard Scientific Facts about this, just observation from the people who visit me at conventions and emails, so this is a skewed sample).
CB: What is it that people who visit you at cons or email you communicate to you about your work?
Moen: Most of the people who contact me just want to say "Hey, I'm like you!" in some regard. I really appreciate that people can see themselves in my comics and, in some cases, help themselves feel less alone or accepted for who they are.
CB: One of your strips is about how everyone assumes that being a woman in this field has made it harder for you because there's an assumption of discrimination in the mostly-male field. Are there things you feel you've been able to do or doors that have been opened (metaphorically speaking) for you BECAUSE you're a woman?
Moen: I've definitely been presented with opportunities specifically because I'm a woman, and it always makes me feel kind of weird. These are always panels, events, or anthologies that are focused on "Women in Comics," which, yes, I am one. But that's not how I like to define my place in the comics world. The way I see it, I would still be making comics regardless of my gender — I'm a cartoonist, the comics I create are the most important aspect of my identity. When people pay attention to me for being a woman cartoonist, I feel like they're looking at the unimportant part of what I've committed my life to. I might as well be invited to speak on "Cartoonists with blue eyes in comics" panels or draw for a Cartoonists who are 5'2" tall anthology.
I want people to pay attention to me because I make good comics that are worth reading, not because physically I fit into some kind of assumed minority status (which also feels false, because, in my special little corner of the comics world, I am surrounded by women).
It's a double-edged sword, though! While I have those feelings I listed above, I'd be a fool to turn down opportunities to have my work reach more readers and to speak to new listeners just because the theme makes me feel conflicted. Not to mention, it is always, always, always flattering to be invited to be a part of somebody's project. So, what can you do? I agree to them and then feel simultaneously flattered and awkward.
CB: What's the greatest compliment you've ever received for your work? The most ridiculous or painful criticism?
Moen: I've had many, many people tell me that my comics helped them come to terms with their sexuality or gender identity or made them feel less alone. That gives me goosebumps just writing it out! It is su
rprising to me how many queer people there are out there who have gone through almost the exact same experiences as me and received the same backlash and rejection from the "queer community," so while my comics help them feel less alone, their letters back to me make me feel less alone too!
And, oh god, there has been a hilarious amount of ridiculous and painful criticism of my work. That it is bi-phobic, trans-phobic, privileged, sexist, racist, anti-feminist, advocates rape (yes, really), that I'm not allowed to call myself queer, that I'm trying to force queers to get married to oppositely-sexed partners like I did… Oh my god, the list could go on and on, only increasing in absurdity. It's fine though. People are allowed to project their interpretations onto my work; we're all entitled to do that! Doesn't mean that's the message I ever had in mind when I was making my comics, though.
When I get hate mail or people confronting me at conventions, I process the experience in the same way that I do when a drunk, crazy, homeless man comes up and yells at me on the street: they're experiencing their own reality and expressing it outwardly, but that has absolutely no bearing on my life or who I am. If anything, I hope my supposedly offensive comics help inspire people to create the kind of comics they do want to read and that do "correctly" portray their views! People can write me angry emails that I'm not going to finish reading before I delete, but wouldn't they feel so much more empowered if they took that same time it would take to yell at me and funneled their anger into something productive, like creating their own comics?
I'm a big fan of not wasting energy on futility (such as screaming into the abyss of the internet) and instead making the content you want to exist, whether it's in the form of a comic, a story, or whatever medium you prefer.
But then again, some people just like to scream, and that's enough for them.
CB: Do you think that some of the negative feedback you get is a result of the fact that you create for an audience that is quite sophisticated in terms of sexual politics? Is the bar particularly high simply because of the subjects you take on?
Moen: That… could be? Yeah, actually, I never really considered that before, but the people who are the most vitriolic towards me are people who are seriously steeped in identity politics, either academically or just are personally passionate about that subject. And, yeah, that's fair enough. I haven't studied identity politics. I accept that I am making a million faux-pas with my language and mindset. But that's not the point of view I'm coming from with my comics. I'm experiencing things and then translating them into comics as a way of processing my own thoughts and discoveries. They're entitled to be offended, and I'm entitled to keep creating. Win-win!
CB: In Drawn to You, you said that you "do wonder if people are more receptive to [your] autobio because [you're] a girl." Do you think that it's because women are seen as more inherently (yuck) introspective or self-aware, that it's somehow less threatening, or something else?
Moen: I think it's because women are inherently seen as less threatening and more "safe" than men are, in our current Western society. Also, generally speaking, Western society is bombarded with images of women in order to sell everything — which is not something I necessarily mind or am protesting — but I do think it has cultivated an environment where it is easier to "read" a womanly figure on the printed pages. I mean, who doesn't like looking at boobs? Even if they're underneath clothes? Maybe I'm just speaking for myself here, but I personally prefer to read comics and look at photos of women. Because: boobs.
CB: Your life, as related in DAR, has been a bit of Chasing Amy (told from the girl's point of view). You talk a lot about your struggles with sexual and gender identity and the pressures from all sides to conform to a single box. Do you see yourself as carving out a specific identity, arguing for acceptance of more fluidity in this arena or just questioning all the assumptions around people's ideas about these categories?
Moen: The only thing I'm trying to tell people in my comic is about my own personal journey through the fluidity that my personal sexuality has undergone. Some people read it and think I am trying to command everyone to go through the exact same process or conform to my exact identity that I've portrayed in my work. But that couldn't be further from the truth! If someone really wanted to force a message onto DAR, I would prefer that it be "Love and happiness trumps everything else" — gender, identity, sexuality, labels, relationships, communities, etc. In my eyes, none of that is necessarily permanent. Find what makes you happy, even if it means giving up something that was important to you but no longer fits you just right.
CB: It sounds as though your work gets a lot of the same criticism as Chasing Amy did. Did the film resonate for you, or do you feel such a critique — that it's telling gay people to go out and find themselves a opposite-sex spouse — is justified?
Moen: Oh gosh, it's been so long since I saw it! Before I even identified as lesbian. Everybody's allowed to interpret stories however they want, so if some people felt the movie commanded lesbians to hook up with dudes, okay, that's fine. If other people felt it tackled the complexity of sexual fluidity and the fuckery that labels creates, okay, that's fine too! People are going to project their personal messages onto everything they see, there's not much point in trying to control it.
CB: Recently, you've been doing collaborative work. After so many years of living your life in your own comics, is this kind of collaboration more restrictive? More inspiring? What led you to this kind of work?
Moen: I loooooooooooove working with collaborators! I feel like my best work comes out of working with a partner. Doing autobio keeps me trapped in my own brain, stewing in my own juices and spending entirely too much time focused on me, me, me. Working with a partner breaks me right out of that mindset. It's like a breath of fresh air. They make me draw things I wouldn't have considered before, they make me think about brand new stories, they make everything fresh and challenging! Infallibly, my art and storytelling always improves by leaps and bounds when I work collaboratively.
Since 2009 I have been working with two different writers, Jeff Parker on Bucko and Brendan Adkins on Indigo Grimm, which I'm hoping to start syndicating online sometime in the next couple years, after I finish my current solo project [a sex-ed book for teenagers about becoming sexually active safely]. In Brendan's case, I approached him directly because I knew he is a super good writer and asked if he could create a script for me based around a couple of elements that I was interested in drawing. Hilariously, the way Jeff Parker and I joined up was b
ecause I had mentioned in an interview that if I could work with any author, it would be him — and then he saw it. So he came up to me and was all, "You wanna work with me, huh?" and that was that!
CB: You made a really exciting announcement at ECCC last week. Care to share it with us?
Moen: The collected Bucko book is coming out from Dark Horse in September 2012! Parker and I have been churning out a ton of extra content, including bonus comics — so far I think we've got about thirty brand new pages of stuff? It's going to be quite the trove.
CB: For those who haven't seen Bucko, what's it about and how does it connect to the rest of your work?
Moen: Bucko is the story of an ineffective young man who has extraordinarily remarkable circumstances thrust upon him and the only way he's going to survive it all in one piece is with the help of his new friend/hopefully-a-hookup-buddy, Gyp. This was a really unique collaboration in that Parker would only give me one page of script at a time, so as the artist I had no idea which characters were going to stick around or what was coming up in the story next. I was reading this story with the same surprise as our audience.
It's definitely a very different direction from my previous autobio works, and there really hasn't been too much of an overlap between the people who read DAR and the people who read Bucko. It's been a really interesting and educational experience that's pushed me as a cartoonist and storyteller!